Posts Tagged ‘Washington Nationals

01
Mar
11

Can the 2011 Braves surprise in the National League East?

Can David defeat Goliath in the battle for NL East supremacy?

The 2011 Atlanta Braves will seemingly be overlooked by most experts and pundits to best the Philadelphia Phillies for division bragging rights. How could last season’s NL Wild Card winners possibly hold their own against the Phillies’ vaunted starting rotation — who many have already deemed one of the best ever assembled?

Sure, they haven’t thrown one pitch in a meaningful game as a collective unit, but on paper, how could anyone argue that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will not equate to a historic starting staff?

Perhaps it’s because a lot can happen over a taxing season. Players must still suit up and play the schedule — a full 162-game marathon. The injury bug so often rears its ugly head, throwing a wrench into any team’s — even the most talented’s — presumed destiny.

Big time egos don’t always mesh together — credit the manager who is able to cohesively mold a “team” together above all individual’s own personal goals and accolades. A club that puts the “I” before the “WE” can and WILL self-destruct. It’s happened before and will happen again.

It’s not to say that these Phillies — the projected favorites not only in the East but in the National League — won’t live up to expectations. It’s not to say that their “sexy” starting rotation won’t go down in history as the best ever. They very well could. But, the beauty of America’s favorite pastime is that baseball wins and division championships aren’t decided on paper or based on sheer talent, projection or expectation.

Any team can still beat you on any given day and the unlikely squad you didn’t see emerging out of camp — hello, 2010 San Francisco Giants — can still defeat the odds and be crowned champions of baseball. The 2010 Giants were the epitome of the “little team that could” — and they gave hope to many lower budget, up and coming clubs that they, too, could eclipse baseball’s perceived powerhouses.

One of those teams believing in such hope is the Atlanta Braves. With an acclaimed starting squad of their own — which they are returning in 2011 — the Braves’ rotation figures to once again be among the game’s elite. Anchored by Derek Lowe, who was dynamite down the stretch last season, and complimented by a resurgent Tim Hudson, emergent Tommy Hanson and a healthy Jair Jurrjens — Braves’ starters stand to give their share of fits to hitters in their quest for a second straight postseason appearance.

And while their rotation is strong in its own right, it’s Atlanta’s bullpen that could emerge as their ace in the hole. Equipped with two young fireballers who could both excel in the closer’s role — Craig Kimbrel and Jonny “Everyday” Venters — Atlanta’s relievers possess the skills to round out a dominant relief corps.

If you’ve come to expect one thing from the Braves over the years, it is a team that can and will consistently pitch well. The question marks have usually risen with the club’s offense and lack of power at its heart. But, this year’s lineup is deeper than ever — with the offseason addition of Dan Uggla as the right-handed, middle-of-the-order bat that the Braves had so desperately coveted. Uggla’s presence alongside fellow All-Stars Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and, if all goes according to plan, a healthy Chipper Jones — could pack a potent offensive punch.

Few would argue against this team’s legitimacy as a contender. But, to win the division and dethrone the big, bad Phillies — well, that just sounds asinine, right?

Wrong.

Despite the Phillies’ nasty rotation, the club has many other questions that make them appear to be vulnerable. ESPN‘s Buster Olney suggests the Phils never addressed their biggest offseason need — a right-handed power bat to replace slugger Jayson Werth — who departed for the Washington Nationals via free agency.

Philadelphia lacks balance and experience in their lineup, placing a heavy offensive burden on talented but unproven youngsters Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown. The defending NL East Champs are also an aging bunch who saw a significant portion of their squad — they had 170 games lost to injuries in just the infield alone in 2010 — on the disabled list last season.

Jimmy Rollins’ OPS has dropped for three consecutive seasons now, and the franchise’s golden boy Chase Utley’s own OPS has sputtered the last two. Ryan Howard’s postseason struggles were well-documented last season and could be attributed to an increase in off-speed pitches away he saw from opposing pitchers that he never was quite able to adjust to.

Even Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who was at Phillies’ camp as an instructor, called out Rollins, Shane Victorino and other offensive stars for their lackluster production last season. The Phillies are not without flaws — which the Braves or any team in the league can hope to exploit — they just expect their superior starters to carry the load and mask the holes in their bullpen and lineup.

Can they? Sure. Will they? That’s why they play the games.

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27
Sep
09

Living on a prayer… Surging Braves cling to slim Wild Card hopes.

Braves pitcher Javier Vazquez

Braves pitcher Javier Vazquez

The Atlanta Braves have sure picked an opportune time to get hot; problem is, it just might be too late.

No longer in control of their own fate, the Braves are surging, completing a three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals this weekend to stay two-and-a-half games behind NL Wild Card-leading Colorado with seven games left to play.

Atlanta’s latest sweep caps a 6-0 road trip for the club, which also extended their road winning streak to 10 games, their first stretch of as many games since 1994 and just fifth in franchise history.

The Braves play division rival Florida for three before finishing up with four more games against Washington at Turner Field to end the season.

The Rockies will play the Brewers for three at home before finishing the season on the road in LA with three games against the playoff-bound Dodgers.

Atlanta, which has the National League’s best record since June 28 (51-30), is baseball’s hottest team right now.

They rebounded from a 1-6 stretch to start the month of September, which put them eight-and-a-half games behind Colorado, and at the time seemingly ended the team’s postseason aspirations.

Since then, the Braves have reeled off 14 wins in their past 16 games to stay hot on the heels of the Rockies in a last ditch effort to make the playoffs.

But, they may have waited too long to put together their best streak of baseball of the season.

While the odds are still stacked against them, Atlanta’s awe-inspiring final push for the playoffs has made for a compelling Wild Card race.

The Braves’ latest stretch of play has players and fans excited about the future of the club heading into the 2010 season.

Atlanta’s never say die attitude is a stark contrast from the team’s often stoic mentality that was present during their run of 14 consecutive division titles.

During their last four playoff appearances spanning from 2002-2005, the Braves coasted into postseason play, only to get bounced by a streaking Wild Card team in the first round of the playoffs to end their season.

This time around, if Atlanta finds a way to sneak in, roles would be reversed and the Braves may be able to wreak the kind of misfortune on a division winner that was bestowed upon them for so many years.

However, their ultimate destiny is out of their hands.

The Braves know one or two more losses likely end their season.

And, without some help from the Brewers and Dodgers, it will be a moot point anyway.

All they can do is keep winning–and hope.

14
Aug
09

A “Philly” big series…

Five games back of the division lead.

Three games against the first place Phils.

Atlanta’s aspirations for an NL East crown are at stake and anything short of a series win against Philadelphia will all but end those hopes.

So, to say this is a big series, is an understatement.

The Braves, while publicly claiming they weren’t overlooking their two-game set against the Washington Nationals, have understandably had their sights on this upcoming series against the Phillies all week long.

But, to their credit, the Bravos have set themselves up quite nicely for Philadelphia, sweeping the pesky Nats.

However, to Philly’s credit, they are coming into tonight’s series against Atlanta riding high after sweeping the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

A series that was looming large figures to live up to the billing.

The Braves are hot, having won five games in a row, heading into Friday night’s opener.

The Phils seem to have caught fire again thanks to their sweep of the Cubs, after previously dropping eight of eleven before heading to Chicago.

If there is one thing that can be said about the Phillies, it is that they are one streaky club.

They have gone on runs where they are absolutely unbeatable and then without any warning, will go cold at the drop of a hat.

The Braves are hoping the Phillies are due for another cold spurt.

Atlanta is slated to send Jair Jurrjens, Kenshin Kawakami, and Javier Vazquez to the hill in this series.

Philadelphia will counter with Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels, and J.A. Happ.

The Braves have to be pleased that they will not be facing Cliff Lee this weekend. Lee hasn’t lost since joining the Phillies in a trade from the Cleveland Indians in late July.

Another thing that weighs heavily in the Braves’ favor is their head-to-head success against the Phillies this season.

Atlanta has won seven of nine from Philadelphia and has shown they can outpitch their division rival.

If the Braves are going to take this series from the Phils, they again will need big performances out of their starting staff.

The Bravos know the tall task before them. They need to win two of three, and stay four games back to remain in the hunt for the East.

If not, Atlanta will have to focus its attention on the NL Wild, if they hope to play October baseball.

Still, for a Braves club that lost 90 games last season, to be factoring so heavily into the division race is quite remarkable.

The Phillies, like most other teams in the league, underestimated the Braves.

The Mets figured to be chasing down the Phils, again, not the Braves.

But, for a team that has thrived all season long by flying under the radar, they are about to get a dose of big time publicity if they can take this series from Philly.

My prediction?

I think the Braves are up to the challenge.

Why?

It is because, for once, they are playing the role of the underdog.

During their run of divisional dominance that saw them assume the title of, “Beasts of the NL East,” the Braves were labeled the favorites, year in and year out.

With the fourteen consecutive division titles came the constant question of, “When would the run end?”

That pressure and the resulting media scrutiny that followed, became larger than life and often crippling.

The Braves aren’t use to being in this situation.

All eyes are on the Phillies… not them.

They have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.

And, it’s for that reason, that I think the Braves will take care of business this weekend.

Forging ahead… IF this Braves team does infact make the playoffs, I think they are a force to be reckoned with.

I believe the main reason why the Braves struggled to find postseason success stems from the fact that they were rarely challenged by their division rivals during the season.

If you look at Atlanta’s past four playoff losses from 2002-2005, where they were eliminated in the first round, you’ll notice their opponents –the Giants, Cubs, Astros and Astros again, were all Wild Card winners.

The Braves, by contrast, were runaway division champs, often 100-plus game winners.

While there opponents were scratching and clawing their way into the playoffs, the Braves were resting their regulars a month before the playoffs were set to begin, not participating in a meaningful game.

As a result, the Braves found it difficult to just flip the switch and recapture the intensity that had alluded them for the past month.

I’ve always said since then that a good, heated division or wild card race would be good for the Braves.

Series’ like this upcoming one against the Phillies builds character.

It is a precursor to the types of series’ and the level of intensity that would await them in October.

If this Braves team gets into the playoffs, their fate could be much different than those teams of the past.

The Braves, and their fans, just hope they get that chance.

11
Aug
09

Watch out NL East… these Braves are for real!

Watch out NL East … the Atlanta Braves aren’t going anywhere.

What a difference a week makes.

The Braves knew they had to make a statement and perform big against the Los Angeles Dodgers this past weekend, who came into their four-game set against Atlanta with baseball’s best record, to keep their playoff hopes alive.

And, they did.

If it wasn’t for the walk-off home run ball Rafael Soriano served up to Andre Either and the consequential blown save in Thursday night’s opener, Atlanta would have swept the mighty Dodgers.

Still, winning three out of four against the best in the business is not too shabby

The Braves series win against Los Angeles coupled with the Florida Marlins sweep of Philadelphia has lifted the Braves to within only 4 1/2 games of the division lead.

After Monday’s off day, Atlanta also finds themselves just four games behind the NL Wild Card-leading Colorado Rockies.

More impressively to note, the Braves won the last three against LA without Chipper Jones in the line-up.

Jones is nursing a strained left oblique, but is likely to return to the line-up tonight when the Braves open a two-game series against the Washington Nationals.

While the Braves are riding high — they have the league’s best record (24-14) since June 28th — surprisingly, the Nationals are the NL’s hottest team.

After dropping 15 of 18 through July 20, Washington has since gone on a tear, winning 14 of 20 games.

The Nationals have owned the Braves this season, winning five of nine head-to-head against them this season.

It is critical for the Braves to continue to build off the momentum from their successful trip to Southern California.

They cannot afford to overlook the Nats this week, as the National League East-leading Phillies are next up for Atlanta this weekend.

In contrast to their struggles against Washington, Atlanta has won seven of nine against Philadelphia this season. They have to hope that trend continues if they want to make a legitimate run for the division crown.

The Braves’ pitching has been solid all season long, keeping them in the hunt when a mediocre or lesser staff would have had them dead and buried by now.

Atlanta’s starters, who often fell victim to an inconsistent and anemic offense, are finally being rewarded for their efforts, thanks to the offensive turnaround the team has enjoyed as of late.

The prognosis for the Braves looks good, as the past few weeks have gradually shown that Atlanta’s offensive turnaround is not an aberration.

Even Kelly Johnson, who has struggled mightily all season long and was even demoted to the minor leagues, has contributed as of late.

Johnson came up with timely heroics against the Dodgers in not one but two of the crucial games in the series.

In Friday’s game, Johnson helped aid a three-run Braves deficit, smashing a two-run home run to assist in the comeback.

Then, fast forward to Saturday night’s contest, where Johnson came into a scoreless game in the 8th inning and ended up being the difference maker, hitting a two-run, 10th inning blast, leading Atlanta to a 2-1 victory.

Johnson’s always been known to be a streaky hitter, often frustrating the Braves brass and fans, who have seen glimpses of the great potential their young second baseman possesses.

When K.J. is swinging the bat well, he’s often unstoppable. Johnson went on a tear in the last 24 games of the 2008 season, hitting a whopping .404.

But, when he’s cold, he can’t buy himself a hit, as witnessed when he hit an abysmal .191 before his demotion early this season.

As evidenced, if Johnson’s back, the Braves offense is in for quite the boost.

But, as last week proved, it can take only a few games for a team to rise or fall.

And, with the dog days of summer rapidly approaching, the Braves realize that this week could indeed make or break their season.

Although, the same thing applied last weekend against the Dodgers and the Braves silenced their critics and embraced the challenge.

This next test proves to be harder, and only the strong survive.

Next week at this time, we should all have a clearer picture about the character and make-up of this Braves team and if they indeed have what it takes to play in October.

But, from the looks of it, these Braves are for real.




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